Davis v. United States
160 U.S. 469 (1895)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Davis v. United States, 160 U.S. 469 (1895)

Davis v. United States

No. 593

Submitted October 30, 1895

Decided December 16, 1895

160 U.S. 469




If it appears on the trial of a person accused of committing the crime of murder that the deceased was killed by the accused under circumstances which, nothing else appearing, made a case of murder, the jury cannot properly return a verdict of guilty of the offense charged if, upon the whole evidence, from whichever side it comes, they have a reasonable doubt whether, at the time of killing, the accused was mentally competent to distinguish between right and wrong or to understand the nature of the act he was committing.

No man should be deprived of his life under the forms of law unless the jurors who try him are able, upon their consciences, to say that the evidence before them, by whomsoever adduced, is sufficient to show beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged.

The plaintiff in error was indicted for murder, tried in the court below, and convicted. In the opinion of this Court, the issue brought here for decision is stated as follows:


Page 160 U. S. 470

court below instructed the jury that the defense of insanity could not avail the accused unless it appeared affirmatively, to the reasonable satisfaction of the jury, that he was not criminally responsible for his acts. The fact of killing being clearly proved, the legal presumption, based upon the common experience of mankind, that every man is sane, was sufficient, the court in effect said, to authorize a verdict of guilty although the jury might entertain a reasonable doubt upon the evidence whether the accused, by reason of his mental condition, was criminally responsible for the killing in question. In other words, if the evidence was in equilibrio as to the accused's being sane -- that is, capable of comprehending the nature and effect of his acts -- he was to be treated just as he would be if there were no defense of insanity or if there were an entire absence of proof that he was insane. "

Page 160 U. S. 474

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Dennis Davis was indicted for the crime of having, on the 18th day of September, 1894 at the Creek Nation, in the Indian Territory, within the Western District of Arkansas, feloniously, willfully, and of his malice aforethought killed and murdered one Sol Blackwell.

He was found guilty of the charge in the indictment. A motion for a new trial having been overruled, and the court having adjudged that the accused was guilty of the crime of

Page 160 U. S. 475

murder, as charged, he was sentenced to suffer the penalty of death by hanging.

At the trial below, the government introduced evidence which, if alone considered, made it the duty of the jury to return a verdict of guilty of the crime charged.

But there was evidence tending to show that, at the time of the killing, the accused, by reason of unsoundness of weakness of mind, was not criminally responsible for his acts. In addition to the evidence of a practicing physician of many years' standing, and who, for the time, was physician at the jail in which the accused was confined previous to his trial, "other witnesses," the bill of exceptions states,

"testified that they had been intimately acquainted with the defendant for a number of years, lived near him, and had been frequently with him, knew his mental condition, and that he was weak-minded, and regarded by his neighbors and people as being what they called 'half crazy.' Other witnesses, who had known the defendant for ten or twenty years, witnesses who had worked with him, and had been thrown in constant contact with him, said he had always been called half crazy, weak-minded, and, in the opinion of the witnesses, defendant was not of sound mind."

The issue therefore was as to the responsibility of the accused for the killing alleged and clearly proved.

In its elaborate charge, the court instructed the jury as to the rules by which they were to be guided in determining whether the accused took the life of the deceased feloniously, willfully, and with malice aforethought. "Where," the court said,

"a man has been shot to death, where the facts, as claimed by the government here, show a lying in wait, show previous preparation, show the selection of a deadly weapon, and show concealment to get an opportunity to do the act -- where that state of case exists, if there is a mental condition of the kind that renders a man accountable, why there is crime, and that crime is murder."

Referring to the evidence adduced to show that the accused was incompetent in law to commit crime, the court observed:

"Now when a man premeditates a wicked design that produces

Page 160 U. S. 476

death, and executes that design, if he is a sane being -- if he is what the law calls a sane man, not that he may be partially insane, not that he may be eccentric, and not that he may be unable to control his will power if he is in a passion or rage because of some real or imaginary grievance he may have received -- I say, if you find him in that condition, and you find these other things attending the act, you would necessarily find the existence of the attributes of the crime of murder known as 'willfulness' and 'malice aforethought.

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